Over the last few years, Bruce Springsteen has taken his skills as a teller of other people’s stories and turned that into a trio of deeply considered and endlessly moving projects—a memoir, a one-man Broadway show, and now a film that seems to tie it all together, Western Stars. Part concert film, part reflective documentary, Western Stars marks Springsteen’s directing debut (along with frequent collaborator Thom Zimny, who also helmed the Springsteen on Broadway Netflix special) and consists of performances of all 13 songs from his most recent album, as well as one cover song to close out the experience.
Between the songs, which are performed in a dramatic, cathedral-like setting of Springsteen’s 100-year-old barn on his farmland property in New Jersey, the co-directors have placed interstitial material of Springsteen looking very deep in thought as he strolls through the California desert, as if he’s looking for answers to the many issues brought up during his narration, spelling out some of his lifelong troubles, joys and continuing concerns. In most of these short films, he ties his struggles and thoughts together into specific song introductions, making it clear that the Western Stars album is more than just his latest collection, but a summary of these life-story chronicles he’s been creating in recent years. Having just turned 70 last month, it’s not surprising that a man so gifted with words might have a few thoughts on growing older, the healing power of family, and the country that he’s spent his entire adult life attempting to understand and reflect upon in his music.
The performances include a band and full orchestra (with strings and horns), as well as a small chorus of backup singers. Most significant to both the music and the stories being told is his wife Patti Scialfa, who sings two songs as duets with Springsteen, resulting in compositions that are strikingly different and more robust than the recorded versions. Zimny also serves as the film’s editor, and he weaves some touching archival footage throughout the in-between segments, including home movies of Bruce and Patti on their honeymoon in the early 1990s, showing a side of Springsteen that is far more playful (and often shirtless) than we’re used to seeing him—I suspect he’s drunk in quite a few of these clips. But through these quick glimpses into his personal life, the deeper meaning of the music is revealed to us.
The cover tune that closes Western Stars is Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” (written by Larry Weiss), which was released in 1975, the same year as Springsteen’s song (and album) “Born to Run.” It’s fascinating to think that the two songs existed in the same moment in history, since they seem so different. But more importantly, after watching an 80-minute movie with Springsteen wearing a cowboy hat and clothing, riding horses, and walking among the cacti of Joshua Trees National Park, it’s amusing to think that the singer might see himself as the character in that song—surviving and making it, especially when the chips are down. For Springsteen, those chips were a rough relationship with his father that resulted in a lifelong battle with depression. In many ways, the song is the perfect closer to a near-perfect big-screen musical experience.
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